Critics of Huffman Want Decision from Haslam

Despite a recent opinion by Tennessee’s attorney general offering legal cover to the state Department of Education for its decision to delay release of student test scores, critics of the agency’s embattled commissioner aren’t letting up on their demand that he be cut loose.

And they want Gov. Bill Haslam to make a decision sooner this summer rather than later in the fall after the general election, as he’s indicated he intends to do.

“I haven’t sat down and had that conversation with [any of the commissioners] about the next four years, because it’s not appropriate,” Haslam said on July 8. “I’m in the middle of a campaign right now, and we will — this fall, if I’m re-elected, we’ll sit down with all 23, and see if they want to continue, and if that works for us.”

Kevin Huffman has been a lightning rod for criticism from both the left and the right. But by the same token he’s got staunch defenders among both Republicans and Democrats as well. Two of his biggest fans have been Tennessee’s GOP governor and the Obama administration’s education chief, Arne Duncan.

Haslam has been emphasizing improvements in test scores that have come about under Huffman, including Tennessee’s status as the fastest improving education system in the nation. The fundamental test of his administration’s education efforts ought to be student performance, the governor said, and in his estimation kids in Tennessee’s publicly funded classrooms are “learning more than they ever have before.”

However, opposition to Haslam on education — in particular, his embrace of both Common Core and student-testing as a means of evaluating the job teachers are doing — runs deep both among educators and conservative politicians who fear the state is giving up control of its education system to outside forces.

Citing a “complete lack of trust” in the commissioner, as well as alleging the manipulation of test scores, a letter sent to Haslam on June 19 demanded Huffman be replaced. Fifteen Republican members of the Tennessee General Assembly — 13 lawmakers in the House and two senators, endorsed the letter, which declared that mistrust of Huffman stems from his “actions and general attitude,” and that he’s demonstrated a “failure to uphold and follow the laws of the state of Tennessee in this latest TCAP debacle we are currently witnessing.”

The letter also questioned whether or not Huffman had the authority to waive the inclusion of TCAP scores, considering that a bill passed by the General Assembly in the 2014 session granted Huffman waiver abilities, but specifically excluded waiving requirements related to “assessments and accountability.”

But state Attorney General Bob Cooper recently released an opinion, requested by state Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, that found Huffman in fact didn’t abuse his authority by waiving those requirements, that no state or federal law “would be violated by a delay in releasing TCAP test scores,” as long as the results were provided by June 30, which they were.

The attorney general’s opinion did little, though, to change the minds of Huffman’s detractors.

Sen. Joey Hensley, a Republican from Hohenwald, said he “wasn’t surprised” by the attorney general’s office opinion, and said it didn’t really carry any legal weight. And anyway, “there are a lot of different issues” on which Hensley said he’s had problems with Commissioner Huffman.

Hensley, a member of the Senate Education Committee, indicated he stands by the letter’s main thrust. Huffman should “go somewhere else,” he said. “I just feel like the commissioner doesn’t listen to the superintendents and the teachers and the principles, and he doesn’t listen too much to the Legislature, either.”

Julie West, the president of Parents for Truth in Education, said that she thinks that Cooper’s opinion is just splitting hairs.

“The irony is Commissioner Huffman pushed for this, because he’s all about the testing, and when he doesn’t get the results he wants all of a sudden he wants to do away with that being factored in,” West said. “And let me say, if the Governor and the Commissioner were really as proud of TCAP scores as they want us to believe, it certainly would not have been announced during the Fourth of July.”

West said that she was not just in favor of Huffman’s resignation, but that he should be fired. West also said that part of the problem, and what was “more disturbing,” was that Cooper “seems to have forgotten that he is supposed to be the attorney for the people of Tennessee, rather than a servant of the Governor.”

“I think that part of the issue is the people of Tennessee don’t have a voice in who the Commissioner of Education is, and don’t have a voice in who the Attorney General is,” West said. “And for that reason they don’t feel, or they seem to act in ways that don’t show a lot of concern for what we believe, and truthfully for what the law seems to be.”

West described her group as not of any particular political perspective, but just people who are not “tolerating” what’s happening to their kids under Common Core or Huffman’s education department.

And regardless of the attorney general’s view on the controversy over the TCAP scores, those on the left wing of Tennessee’s political spectrum still think Huffman needs to go, too. The Tennessee Democratic Party has regularly called for Huffman’s ouster, on the grounds that he is aloof and unresponsive to local teachers and education officials.

The governor owes it to the people of Tennessee to declare whether or not he plans to keep Huffman around, said Democratic Party Chairman Roy Herron. That decision, Herron told TNReport, “is overdue, and should be both made and announced as soon as possible.”

“The commissioner has refused to listen to the teachers in public schools, and to the superintendents and schools boards who run those schools,” Herron said in a phone interview. “But the commissioner has united Tennesseans, from Tea Party Republicans to Tennessee Democrats, from 60 superintendents to thousands of teachers, who all agree it is past time for this commissioner to go back to Washington.”

Mary Mancini, a Democratic candidate for the Tennessee State Senate district being vacated by longtime state legislator, Sen. Douglas Henry, said that Haslam needs to either make his decision about Huffman, or “explain in non-political terms” why he has not made that decision yet, because she finds the education commissioner’s performance to be lacking.

“When looking at this job performance, it’s clear that [Huffman]’s just not working the way he should be; doing his job basically,” said Mancini. “He’s been difficult and unresponsive to legislators on both sides of the aisle. Somebody needs to hold him accountable, and both Republicans and Democrats have been trying to do that, and he’s been completely ignoring them, and unresponsive, and that’s not acceptable.”

And the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, believes that the TCAP delay is another in a line of issues with the state’s top education executive, said Jim Wrye, government relations manager for the TEA.

“The policies were placed in that it would be anywhere between 15 and 25 percent of a student’s grade, and that it wasn’t ready at the end of school just threw a huge wrench into what is one of the most important things — which are final grades — for students, and especially for teachers,” Wrye said.

Wrye, though admitting he’s not a lawyer, said that he found the AG’s opinion interesting  because “the idea that you could be exempted from student assessments was something that was prohibited in that flexibility bill. It was something we had discussed at length during the legislative session.”

In September 2013, 63 school superintendents from around the state signed a letter criticizing the education reform policies being implemented by the state’s top education office. And later in 2013, teachers’ unions across the Volunteer State cast votes of “no confidence” in Huffman.

However, Huffman has enjoyed some recent support, with a petition of support recently announced that, as of press time, features over 400 signatures from Tennesseans, including Kate Ezell, a consultant associated with the Tennessee Charter School Incubator as a funds-raiser from September 2011 to January 2013.